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Exposing The One-Trick Phony

Jon Stewart’s greatest contribution to psychology

Here’s a popular trick that you or someone you know might exploit:

Pick a sometimes-virtue and treat it as though it were an always-virtue.

Any virtue. If you’re a libertarian, it’s freedom. Freedom is always good. No matter what the question, freedom is the answer.

If you’re spiritual, perhaps it’s love. Love is always good. No matter what the question love is the answer.

If you’re macho it could be strength, courage or discipline. If you’re a softy, it could be serenity, tolerance or peace.

Having decided you’re an exceptional advocate for your one chosen virtue doesn’t mean you actually have to actually treat it as the answer to all questions.

In fact, you can’t. That’s not how virtues work. Every virtue is a sometimes-virtue.

Take serenity and courage. Each sounds like it could be an always-virtue. No one is ever insulted when called serene or courageous.

But think about them in the context of the serenity prayer. We seek the wisdom to know the difference between situations that call for either serenity or courage. We have to seek the wisdom because in fact serenity and courage are at core, opposites.

For serenity, you have to cultivate an ability to ignore what’s not working, for courage you have to cultivate attention to what’s not working. You can’t ignore and attend to the same thing simultaneously, so you have to decide which to cultivate in each situation.

Sure, serenity and courage are not opposites in that both sound swell and grand and A-OK, but when you think about what they really mean, positive connotations aside, they’re opposites.

Serenity and courage are each only sometimes-virtues. The serenity to accept is the absolute right answer when you can’t improve things, but the absolute wrong answer when you can improve them. Courage to change things is the absolute right answer when you can improve things, but the absolute wrong answer when you can’t.

Love is always the right answer sometimes, but not, for example, when the object of your love is a horrible thing that will cause lots of people lots of problems. Freedom is always the right answer sometimes, but not, for example, when freedom makes things get horribly out of hand.

But if you’re a one-trick phony you can ignore all, that thanks to the availability of synonyms for your favorite virtues that make them sound bad. Serenity is defeatism, denialism, spinelessness. Courage is stubbornness, aggressiveness, being overbearing. Love is good but being a suck-up is bad. Freedom is good, but recklessness is bad. Same denotation; opposite connotation.

Armed with these alternative ways to describe the same behavior, you can ignore all the ways your one trick doesn’t work. You can say you’re for courage but not stubbornness and that they’re obviously opposites since one is good and the other is bad.

Then you can come out swinging, proving over and over that your one-trick virtue always works by applying its name selectively. “What I do is serene; what you do is spineless. What I do is courageous; what you do is stubborn.”

License to high and mighty hypocrisy on stilts. The answer is always easy. “Do whatever the hell I think you should do, and like whatever I like. Never mind whether I do what I think you should do. I don't because when I do the opposite of what I advocate, I have a different name for my version of it that makes it sound A-OK”

I’m going to miss Jon Stewart. He was thoroughly entertaining and his politics align pretty well with mine, but I think more to the point, his 2675 episodes have been a series of case studies in one-trick phonyism from any and all of us.

And that’s what it takes to overcome the one-trick phony trick's popular appeal, repeated exposure to case after case of it from across the political and social spectrum to figure out why it’s just a trick.

That, and some introspection about how we too might be exploiting it.